Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Out on a Limb

a fresh perspective on Genius Day

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my real or perceived struggles with expanding Genius Hour to a full day in third grade. My effort to give over 20% of my student's workweek, had left me with more questions than answers. I had even considered scrapping the idea altogether or at the very least returning to an hour a week.

I've been reflecting on the questions I posed in that post and have come to realize (as usual) that it's not the kids in the room, but my own perception of what student-driven learning should look like that caused me to doubt the learning that was happening. I had let my perspective be influenced too much by what other teachers might think about the noisy, chaotic, yet, collaborative, creative, engaged maelstrom of learning that occurs on Fridays.
If a school were a tree, I'd be out on a very long limb. Think of the traditional classroom as a sturdy branch well anchored to a stable, grounded, deeply-rooted, structured, and slow growing trunk Now imagine a limb that grew a bit too fast and a little bit too perpendicular to the trunk. It's attached to the trunk, but at its angle and length, its stability is questionable. That's where you usually find me, as far out on the limb as possible, clinging to the little branches for balance.

Lately, however, I realize that I've been inching back toward the trunk. The closer I got, the more focused on the trunk I became. And that's when the questions began. I'd lost the perspective from the end of the branch. I began to view what was happening in my classroom during Genius Day not as learning, but as something more akin to free time. I'd lost perspective.

I began to see the paper airplanes flying around the room as distractions instead of experiments in aerodynamics, velocity and materials; the carpet of construction paper as a waste of resources instead of a study in area and spacial awareness; and the tiny pieces of home furnishings and copious saved images as a waste of time instead of a natural beginning to the creative process.

I've begun inching my way back out to my place on the limb thanks to my PLN and especially Joy Kirr @JoyKirr and Mark White @mwhitedg whose comments and posts helped me realize how fortunate I am to be able to balance on a limb at all, especially when so many teachers are tethered to the trunk either by policy, pedagogy or both.

I am in no way going to reduce Genius Day back to an hour. It's become too much a part of my classroom DNA. The mere mention of not having Genius Day due to a field trip, special visitor or assembly is met with groans and anguished looks of disbelief on the faces of my budding entrepreneurs.

I'm heading back out to my space on the limb. It's not as stable, but the perspective is much better.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Genius? Day

reflections on 8 weeks of student-directed learning

Organic. That's what I wanted. An organic learning experience that, given enough time, would grow into a connected tree of knowledge. If I plant the seed and give students time to explore their passions and to learn what and how they want, will a great learning experience will take root and grow? 

This year, I decided to fully embrace the concept of 20% time and give my 3rd grade class one day of the week to explore anything they wanted. Anything. I didn't give them a rubric to follow, an organizer to use, a planner to guide them, or set deadlines or checkpoints. They are not unfamiliar with self-directed learning. The previous year they were given Friday afternoons for Genius Hour. This time was a huge success and something each student looked forward to every week. Expanding it to a full day seemed like a natural progression. 

More is better, right?

Before they begin Genius Day, we have a class meeting to discuss a topic relevant to self-directed learning. We've covered driving questions, deciding that a good driving question can't be answered by Google in less than a second. We've discovered a variety of search tools and how to use them by searching with key words instead of questions. We've learned to ask why, how, and what if, more than who, what, when and where. We've created a shared blog with a classroom in another country to share our genius with the world. We've established a "wonder wall" where throughout the week anyone can post something they're wondering about. We've learned and practiced "critical friending" our ideas and projects. We've even done a project based learning project to create a rubric so students can self-assess their projects. 

What I haven't done is direct the learning. 

For the last couple of Fridays, here is what has been going on in my room. Two students dismantled a solar powered calculator trying to design a method of charging cell phones while riding a bike. A student is researching making concrete houses in Africa to power ovens for baking after discovering that the Hoover Dam radiates enough heat to bake bread. A group is working on designing a remote controlled bomb squad hovercraft. My statistically least proficient students are working on researching endangered animals, and in the process, reading and comprehending resources standardized tests say they shouldn't be able to read. Last week, a group started working on a rubber airplane, wondering if that wouldn't be more safe in the event of a crash. 

Here are some other things I'm noticing. A group glued 20 sheets of construction paper together to build a tree house. The project was abandoned. Another group, wondering if you could build a floating house, spent their day cutting notebook paper into pieces and arranging them into furniture, lights, etc. for the house. Some students spend the day "searching," ending up with a huge number of saved photos on their iPads and little else. I also saw the rubber airplane group construct airplanes from pencils and paper, which soon took various test flights around the room. Their group suddenly became very popular. 

We're eight weeks into the school year, and eight weeks into Genius Day.

Reflecting on this experiment led me to write this post. As I contemplate scaling back Genius Day to Genius Hour, I'm struggling with so many questions. Why am I feeling like this experiment is not successful? Why have the past few weeks been more frustrating for me? Why do I feel that Genius Day has regressed into "Fun Time Arts and Crafts" Friday? Am I expecting too much? Or worse, too little? Do students have too much time for self-directed learning? Am I too concerned about what other teachers think? Are the kids really learning? Do I need to prove it? Am I managing enough? Is it time for more structure? Have I lost the joy in the process, at the expense of a product? 

Has the plant grown too big and is in need of pruning? Or does it need fertilizer, water, and nurturing to continue to grow and mature? 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

First Quarter Report

With the first quarter of the school year nearly over, it's time for an update on the Entrepreneurial Classroom. In general, I think it is going well. An overwhelming majority of students have bought into the system and are actively engaged in the work of the company - learning. Everyday I see a highly motivated group of kids learning to take risks, think creatively, collaborate effectively, criticize honestly, accept challenges, and take ownership. We have built our classroom around these habitudes of entrepreneurs.

Risk taking

Our Company Logo
An on-going theme in our classroom has been to see failure as necessary for success. This change in mindset from seeing failure as the end of learning to seeing failure as the beginning of learning more than anything else has changed the way students interact with each other and with me. I used to have to pull names from a hat to get volunteers to show their thinking to the class. Now, students enthusiastically volunteer. And the best part, when they don't arrive at the correct answer, a discussion starts not only about what they did wrong, but how and why they made the mistake without judgement.

Creative thinking

Thinking creatively is a difficult concept for eight- and nine-year-olds, who equate creativity with more concrete skills like drawing, painting, etc. We've been focusing more on perspective with regard to creativity, working on the ability to see things differently and look for another way to solve a problem. This is the most difficult area for me as I see the tools we have available in our 1:1 classroom and want to "push" them to use something other than the same whiteboard app for every presentation.

Improved Collaboration

I haven't grouped my kids for lessons, independent practice or activities. They have formed groups as needed based largely on purpose and interest. It's been amazing to watch how they've grouped for the different activities and subjects. During math, I have a group I work with daily because they need extra support. The rest of the class forms cooperative groups without much intervention from me. Likewise during literacy activities the groups are fluid and heterogeneous. Our afternoons are reserved for project-based learning and grouping choices are made largely based on purpose and not personality. While some students prefer to work with certain students, there hasn't been any exclusion of a student or students and all are willing to share information with peers.

Critical thinking and Criticism 

I believe that increased risk taking has lead to an increase in critical thinking among my students. I am certain that risk taking affects their ability to give and take criticism. I notice that my students are questioning more, less concerned with being first with the right answer, and continue searching for more information. They've coined a term "googleable" to use to evaluate driving questions during project-based learning and genius hour. If a question is "googleable" it's not a good driving question because Google can answer it in less than a second. I see them becoming critical consumers of information.
We starting using a critical friends process for evaluating each others work. This process begins with a student providing something to share with the group - writing, a project idea, math problem, research. Students comment by starting with an "I like" statement then move to more critical "I wonder," "I'm confused by," and "I think" statements. The process ends with the student who offered the work for "critical friending" telling what their next steps will be based on the criticism they were given. This process of peer evaluation really holds meaning for students and makes them feel as if they, and what they are doing, matters.

Accepting Challenges

Every group of students has at least one minimalist - the kid who only does what is necessary to get done. While I do have a minimalist, that child is starting to feel alone. This group has been willing to take on new challenges largely because they have bought in to the system and find purpose in what they are being asked to do. They know that failure is an option and that it doesn't matter if they don't know the right answer immediately. It's the process that matters, because in the process of learning, the learning happens.Adopting the habitudes of entrepreneurs has lead to students creating an environment where mistakes are embraced, creativity in thought and action is common place, collaboration occurs naturally, critical thinking is automatic, criticism is accepted, and students have ownership of learning.

As the Chief Learning Officer, I still have to make executive decisions. There are times when you just have to do what you're told in life. But I make very few decisions unilaterally; I trust my team to make good, reasonable choices (for the most part), accept the consequences of those choices, and have given them freedom to do so. From my perspective, I see an engaged classroom, working together to construct and share knowledge on a daily basis. I'd say the first quarter has been a success.